Why Willpower Can Be Your Worst Enemy

Michelle Wax, Founder of American Happiness Project

February 2021

Michelle Wax Article

Most of us know what we ‘should’ be doing….right?

We know we should be eating healthy. We know we should be getting enough sleep. We know we should be taking care of our mental and physical health. We know we should set up boundaries for work and personal life.

We technically know all of this..so why is it so difficult to actually implement positive habits?

I recently was talking to a friend, Sarah, who had been waking up late at ~9AM each morning and rolling out of bed into her first Zoom meeting of the day. She found herself feeling groggy and sluggish throughout the day, affecting her productivity. She called me up with a plan to jumpstart her new productive lifestyle:

“Okay Michelle, I’m going to wake up tomorrow at 6AM, go for a run, meditate, shower, and get ready for the day all before 8:45AM so I feel energized and jumpstart the day productively.”

Guess what happened the next morning? None of that. Sarah hit the snooze button repeatedly and ended up feeling worse about herself because she hadn’t followed through on her grand plan.

Sound familiar? This happens to thousands of people each and every day that try to implement any type of change. The good news is, it’s not your fault if a change you’ve attempted to make hasn’t stuck just yet – it’s just likely that the change required too much willpower.

And if you depend solely on willpower to make a change in your life, it likely won’t work long term.

Let me explain….

The brain consists of two minds, the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind is where our willpower lives, it’s also our analytical thinking and short term memory as well. The conscious mind is only 3-5% of our total mind — tiny compared to the subconscious.

The subconscious mind is where our habits of thinking, feeling, and acting live — it’s how our heart beats and how our eyes blink without us (consciously) doing anything. The subconscious mind is always running in the background, and it is 95-97% of the total mind. Your subconscious habits and beliefs will almost always override your willpower (located in the conscious mind) — because it’s simply just so much bigger and more powerful than the conscious mind.

In Sarah’s case, her subconscious was used to waking up at 9AM and rolling out of bed, so when it came time to make this massive shift consciously to waking up at 6AM, exercising, and meditating – the subconscious overrode the conscious effort easily.

So how do we start using the subconscious mind to our advantage? How do we stop depending completely on willpower for positive habit formation?

Start with small, incremental systems that compile over time to reach your goal.

In Sarah’s case, her positive habit goal was to wake up at 6AM daily to start the day feeling energized and kickstart productivity. Her system? Go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, and wake up 15 minutes earlier each morning.

The next morning, she woke up at 8:45AM. Then 8:30AM. Then 8:15AM. Until she reached 6AM.

If you’re trying to lose 15 pounds, or generate more energy throughout the day, your system could be: Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables each evening before dinner, and portion them out as an easy snack to grab. The next time you feel hungry, reach for the veggies instead of a bag of chips. And so on.

Systems inevitably lead you to your goals but they also provide daily benefits to your wellbeing.

Think about the last goal or accomplishment you reached…

It felt good, right? I’m sure you were ecstatic when you hit the number, or got the promotion, or bought the house. But what happened after a few days? The enthusiasm and joy of reaching the goal likely wore off, and you were back to striving for something else.

Implementing systems gives you daily benefits, even when you haven’t hit the big goal or accomplishment just yet and allows you to continue progressing each and every day

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